THE MORNING PLUM:
White House advisers are in an “uproar” over an interview that Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats gave to NBC News on Thursday, according to reporting in The Post.
As well they should be. After all, Coats starkly warned that Russia is currently trying to “wreak havoc over our elections” — meaning Russia is trying to do this right now — and is working to “divide us” from our “allies.” No wonder White House advisers are worked up — after all, Russia already got away with sabotaging our last election, and they’re trying to do it again.
Okay, I’m kidding. Here’s what really upset them about this Coats interview:
Inside the White House, [President] Trump’s advisers were in an uproar over Coats’s interview in Aspen, Colo. They said the optics were especially damaging, noting that at moments Coats appeared to be laughing at the president, playing to his audience of the intellectual elite in a manner that was sure to infuriate Trump.
“Coats has gone rogue,” said one senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide a candid assessment.
The director of national intelligence issued an extensive warning that Russia is again trying to corrupt U.S. democracy, and White House advisers are worried that Trump will be angered by his tone.
During that interview, Coats said a number of disturbing things. He said he doesn’t “know what happened” during Trump’s one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday. He added that we must be “relentless” in terms of continuing to call out Russia’s last round of electoral sabotage, and be “ever vigilant” about the possibility of more to come.
The portion that might anger the president came when NBC’s Andrea Mitchell surprised Coats by telling him that Trump had just announced that he had invited Putin to Washington this fall. “Say that again,” Coats said. “Did I hear you?” She repeated it. Coats responded: “That’s going to be special.”
In fairness, it’s not surprising that White House advisers might be upset about this because, even if Coats disagrees with the president, the expectation is understandably that senior officials will keep that concealed and won’t embarrass the president about it. But what is particularly notable and revealing here is this notion that, in saying all these things, Coats has “gone rogue.”
That’s because Coats has, in fact, “gone rogue,” in an important substantive sense. Coats is warning — as he has previously done — that the prospect of more Russian interference in our elections poses a serious threat, and he’s doing so in a particularly attention grabbing way. Meanwhile, other officials are not treating this threat seriously enough. On Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said this about Russia and the 2016 election:
“I haven’t seen any evidence that the attempts to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party.”
Of course, the consensus view of the intelligence community is that Russia interfered to help Trump win. And the indictment from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III documented a sabotage plot of extraordinary scope, reach and ambition geared towards precisely that end. Nielsen did say it would be “foolish” to assume Russia won’t interfere again, and said: “We’ve got to be prepared.” But we all know Nielsen refrained from saying Russia wanted Trump to win because it would anger Trump. And indeed, the president has continued to mostly deny that Russia interfered at all — including doing so while standing next to Putin — though Trump was briefed 18 months ago on intelligence showing that the Russian leader personally directed the plot.
So how prepared can Nielsen and the rest of the administration really be for another round of Russian sabotage if she feels constrained from publicly telling the full truth about the last round of it?
In this sense, Coats really has gone rogue — by taking the threat of future Russian interference more seriously, and sounding the alarm about it more loudly, than other officials do, the guy at the very top included.
* A TELLING EXCHANGE WITH COATS: By the way, this exchange between Mitchell and Coats, about Putin’s meeting with Trump, is also notable:
Mitchell: Is there a risk that Vladimir Putin could have recorded it?
Coats: That risk is always there.
The director of national intelligence is floating the possibility that Putin has a recording of two hours of private Trump remarks to him. Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and who worked for six years at the State Department, engaging often with the DNI over intelligence sharing with allies, told me this could be more significant than we as yet understand.
“The clear implication of Coats’ comment is that Putin might have greater lever leverage over Trump than we know,” Bergmann said. “We’re already seeing the Russians use what happened in that meeting to go to other European capitals to say, ‘This is what was agreed to by President Trump.’ ” Bergmann added that the Russians “likely have a detailed record of that conversation,” while “we’re all in the dark.”
* POLL: MAJORITY THINKS RUSSIA WILL SABOTAGE AGAIN: A new Daily Beast/Ipsos poll finds that 51 percent of Americans think Russia will interfere in the midterm elections, including 37 percent of Republicans. And:
Nearly half of the respondents (49 percent) said they agreed with assessments that Trump’s performance at the summit could be described as “treasonous.” That included 21 percent of Republican respondents.
It would have been interesting if the poll had asked whether respondents think Trump would welcome another round of sabotage.
* NEW PUTIN VISIT COULD SCRAMBLE MIDTERMS: Trump has invited Putin for a visit to Washington this fall, and the New York Times notes:
Beyond saying the meeting would be in the fall, the White House did not announce a date. That means Mr. Trump could meet Mr. Putin again before the midterm elections, giving him a chance to redress the widespread criticism of how he handled the first meeting and possibly injecting further volatility into the campaigns.
Something tells us Trump’s conduct towards Putin next time will only compound that criticism, not “redress” it. But there’s little doubt it will roil the elections.
* GOP CONGRESSMAN: TRUMP ‘MANIPULATED’ BY RUSSIA: Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) wrote an op ed excoriating Trump’s embrace of Vladimir Putin:
Over the course of my career as an undercover officer in the C.I.A., I saw Russian intelligence manipulate many people. I never thought I would see the day when an American president would be one of them. . . . by playing into Vladimir Putin’s hands, [Trump] actively participated in a Russian disinformation campaign that legitimized Russian denial . . . I believe that lawmakers must must fulfill our oversight duty as well as keep the American people informed of the current danger.
Yes, Trump is currently colluding with Russia, right there in plain sight.
* WORRIES RISE ABOUT MORE RUSSIAN SABOTAGE: The Associated Press reported this on the reaction in Congress to Trump’s embrace of Putin:
Mixed messages from Trump have increased worries in Congress that the White House is not taking seriously the threat that senior officials say Russia now poses to the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. Democrats in the House sought Thursday to extend a state grant program for election security but were blocked by Republicans.
Hmm. Perhaps these “worries” are only arising on one side?
* KEEP AN EYE ON TENNESSEE: The Fix has updated its top 10 Senate races to watch, and importantly, the Tennessee Senate race is now seen as competitive:
Democrats have their best chance here in years with the retirement of Republican Sen. Bob Corker and their recruitment of a popular former governor, Phil Bredesen. Republicans like their top pick, too, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who was recently the recipient of a coveted campaign rally visit from President Trump. But she’s not getting much help from the current seat-holder: This spring, Corker praised Bredesen and then, when given the opportunity to clarify his statement, didn’t really. Some polls show Bredesen with the lead, others Blackburn.
If Democrats do manage to pick up this seat, it makes a Democratic takeover of the Senate a bit more plausible, or if not, it could mitigate the damage if one or two red-state Democrats lose.
* TRUMP’S TRADE WAR ESCALATES: The President told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that he’s ready to expand his tariffs so they hit $500 billion worth of Chinese goods. Note this:
Trump also said he was told by unspecified Chinese officials that “nobody would ever complain” from past administrations “until you came along — me. They said, ‘Now you’re more than complaining. We don’t like what you’re doing.’ “
The trade war has become so deeply entangled with Trump’s megalomania, it is hard to see an end to it anytime soon.
* TRUMP TRADE WAR PUTS GOP CANDIDATES IN TOUGH SPOT: Axios reports that Trump’s escalating trade war is threatening economic damage in states will competitive Senate races, putting GOP candidates in an awkward position:
Speaking out against trade policy that’s hurting their state or district could turn off voters who would view that as criticizing Trump. . . . In North Dakota . . . [GOP candidate] Kevin Cramer has issued carefully worded statements . . . emphasizing the need to protect farmers while stopping short of criticizing the president. . . . in the race for Tennessee’s open Senate seat, where Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn has called the tariffs “part of a negotiation and a process.”
GOP candidates must not tell Republican voters the full truth about the damaging impact of Trump’s policies, because it would offend them.